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Thursday, April 12, 2012

PC Game Series Ruined by Consolization


As an ardent player of PC games, I've noticed that longtime PC-exclusive series tend to get ruined the moment they make the cross over to the console market. There are over a dozen cases where an established, successful PC-exclusive franchise turned south almost as a direct result of console limitations, or for changing their design philosophies to match a new target audience. The end result is usually that intelligent, sophisticated, complex game series become simplified and lose a lot of their original appeal.

Consoles are also more prevalent among gamers, so producers can garner higher sales figures with the console market, which entices them to continue catering to the console audience with the next sequel. Which disappoints me, because even though a lot of these series continue to be released on the PC, they often just aren't as good as they once were. So in the full article I'll be taking a look at some of the PC-exclusive series that eventually broke onto the console market, and describing how the transition affected the integrity of the series.


The Elder Scrolls

I'm sure you're all familiar with TES and don't need much of an introduction. Bethesda launched the first in the series, Arena, in 1994 for MS-DOS computers. They followed that with Daggerfall in 1996 and then pursued two spin-offs, Battlespire and Redguard, before releasing the acclaimed TES III: Morrowind in 2002. All of these games were PC exclusives; even though Morrowind also appeared on the Xbox, it was originally designed for the PC and the work was then ported later on in development.

Seeing the relative success of Morrowind on a console, Bethesda designed Oblivion from the very onset to be a multi-platform release, thus making Oblivion the first in the series to have been consolized. It wasn't until Oblivion that we started seeing quest compasses, fast travel, and enemy level-scaling that all essentially ruined the whole RPG component of the series. Other elements were completely removed or simplified, thus diminishing a lot of complexity and nuance in the game, such as how they dropped the distinctions between spears, axes, short blades, long blades, and blunt weapons and lumped them all into "blade" and "blunt" skills. These are just a few examples. 

I'm not a huge TES fan. I have my share of complaints with Morrowind, but I think it goes without saying that Morrowind was the better RPG, while Oblivion plays more like a streamlined action-adventure game. Annoyed as I am by some of Morrowind's design elements, the TES series never blatantly offended me until Oblivion. And, well, you can see how Skyrim subsequently turned out.


Fallout

The original two Fallout games are considered among the pioneers of current western RPGs. Developed by Black Isle Studios in 1997 and 1998, Fallout and Fallout 2 set the RPG standard for years to come. They were intelligent games that offered a lot of complex choices (with consequences) and role-playing elements that RPG fans have come to love. These were PC-exclusive games catering to an audience that likes intelligent, sophisticated role-playing experiences.

Then, in 2008, Bethesda got their hands on the rights and ruined the series with Fallout 3, a grotesque bastardization that retains only cursory similarities to the original games. Basically everything that made the original Fallouts great is missing in FO3, and it comes complete with most of the casual, streamlined features that were popularized in Oblivion. Instead of being an RPG akin to the originals, it felt more like FO3 was catering to the Halo and Modern Warfare crowd.

But even before Bethesda ruined the series, Interplay tried putting Fallout on the Xbox and PS2 with Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel, another disgrace of a game that plays like a linear action game. As soon as the consoles got involved, the once intelligent and complex RPG series became a shallow action series. The one exception to this trend is New Vegas, a multi-platform release which is actually rather good and plays fairly close in style to the original games.


System Shock

The original System Shock was developed by Looking Glass Studios in 1994 as a PC exclusive, and its beloved sequel, System Shock 2, was released in 1999 as a joint effort between Looking Glass and Irrational Games. System Shock 2 was a fantastic game that had a lot of strong role-playing elements (such as character customization, resource management), mixed in with some excellent FPS and survival-horror elements. It was a tough game that made you think, and it was pretty sophisticated for its time.

Come 2007, Irrational released BioShock as a multi-platform spiritual successor to SS2. It's fundamentally the exact same game, except being steampunk instead of cyberpunk, and with virtually all of the great, compelling design elements stripped out from it. There's absolutely no inventory management, you're constantly tripping over resources, the exploration is deceptively linear and unrewarding, the Vita chambers ensure absolutely zero penalty for dying, the character upgrades got simplified, and there are basically no consequences for any of your decisions.

Once again, it's like all of the nuanced design elements from the originals were removed in favor of making the console release more of a casual and streamlined affair. In BioShock, the FPS element becomes the primary emphasis with the RPG only scarcely present, and it just plays like a mindless action game. They had a great formula, but decided to forgo with all the good bits in the process of designing it for a multi-platform release.


F.E.A.R.

Monolith had been making PC-exclusive shooters ever since they were formed. Blood and Blood 2 ('97 and '98) were great action shooters following in the footsteps of Doom, and No One Lives Forever ('00) was one of the best shooters since the original Half-Life. In 2005, Monolith released F.E.A.R. as yet another PC exclusive FPS, and it was a brilliant game with great level design and complex enemy AI, which made for some really intense, dynamic, and tactical combat.

F.E.A.R. was later ported to the consoles, but development for the sequel, F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin was slated from the beginning to be a multi-platform release. And either by deliberate design or as some side-effect along the way, Project Origin's combat became an overly simplistic run-n-gun action affair. Instead of having large, elaborate map designs that allowed for strategic positioning, leaning around corners and hiding behind cover as you tried to flank your enemies and avoid them flanking you, combat mostly consists of shooting at guys who just come straight at you in boring, cluttered rooms.

F.E.A.R. 2 is still a halfway decent game, but it utterly pales in comparison to the original. When I tried playing the sequel like I played the first game, I found myself frustrated and disappointed, and the game only became fun once I resigned myself to playing it like any other casual shooter. Casual shooters can be fun in their own rights, but it's definitely not something I expected from a F.E.A.R. game, and it's a noticeable step down from the quality of the original.


Thief

Thief: The Dark Project (made by Looking Glass Studios in 1998) was monumental for stealth gaming and popularized a lot of the stealth gameplay elements that are still around today. Its sequel from 2000, Thief 2: The Metal Age improved the formula even further. These were great games with lots of open-ended gameplay and very convincing stealth mechanics.

The third entry in the series, Deadly Shadow, was co-developed for an Xbox release and ultimately suffered for it. Deadly Shadows is still a pretty good game (the Cradle mission alone makes the game absolutely worth playing), but for whatever reason, we lost a lot of the big, open level designs where you could explore off the beaten path for extra loot or rewards, or experiment with different approaches and play the mission differently each time. The large, complex maps were replaced with smaller, more-confined and often restricting designs. And that central free-roaming city hub was just tedious.

One might argue that this limitation was brought on purely in light of the Xbox's limited memory capacity, as compared to a PC. Or maybe they wanted the game to be a little more straightforward and accessible for people who were unfamiliar with the previous games. Or maybe it's because the third game was made by a team other than Looking Glass who just didn't quite understand what the appeal was all about. Whatever the reason, Deadly Shadows just isn't as sophisticated in its design as the original PC titles were. We can only wonder how Thi4f will turn out.


Deus Ex

The first Deus Ex was released for the PC in 2000. As a spiritual successor to System Shock 2, DX retained a lot of the great elements from that game, fusing FPS and RPG elements into a cohesive, brilliant game. You could customize your character in numerous different ways, thanks to the skills and augmentations, you had a clever inventory management system, and there were always multiple different ways for you to complete objectives. Deus Ex fully deserved its Game of the Year status and remains a fan favorite to this day.

In 2003, Ion Storm released a sequel co-developed for the Xbox, Deus Ex: Invisible War. Just as you'd expect, they simplified the sequel by jettisoning most of the original game's most crucial aspects. The skill system is completely gone and there are far fewer biomods to choose from and you can't equip as many. Other things got streamlined, like the inventory management system, coupled with the fact that you have a universal ammo type (instead of each weapon having its own types). The game length is far, far shorter than the original, and like with Deadly Shadows, the level design is far, far smaller.

Invisible War seemingly places a greater emphasis on the action instead of strategy and role-playing, as if they were trying to get more sales from the Halo crowd. And yet ironically, the action elements aren't even that great, given the simplistic enemy AI which makes stealth take-downs incredibly easy, and straight-up firefights a breeze. The story is still pretty good, but Invisible War is utterly disappointing compared to the first game. The exception here is Human Revolution, also developed with consoles in mind, which is actually pretty good.


Gothic

The original two Gothics are my all-time favorite games. Piranha Bytes developed the first game in 2001, and Gothic 2 in 2003. They were phenomenal games when they came out, and still offer better role-playing experiences than the kinds of stuff you can find in popular RPGs these days. The key points to Gothic's greatness deal with their open, non-linear worlds, its quests being deeply-rooted in the environment, and the way you leveled-up and got stronger in a harsh, challenging foodchain.

Having lost the Gothic rights to publisher JoWood after Gothic 3, a new developer took over for Gothic 4, which sought a multi-platform release with the Xbox 360. And once again, we have a great, brilliant series simplified and streamlined until all of its original appeal is gone. Quests are now really shallow item-fetching, exploration is hindered by locked gates everywhere that don't let you progress to the next area until you've finished the main quest for that area, the combat is now a mindless hack-n-slash ordeal (instead of a tactical timing-based sort of deal), the skill system got streamlined into linear trees with no trainers, and you can brew potions straight out of your pocket.

It's just a disgrace compared to the legacy of the originals that doesn't even deserve the name Gothic. This one's failure might just be attributable to the change in developer, who obviously just didn't understand the core concepts behind the series. But there's still a lot of streamlined elements carried over from the likes of Oblivion (e.g., the quest compass) that I suppose are meant to cater more to the console audience.


In Conclusion

These are just the games I've played myself to know first-hand how detrimental the transition to consoles can be for a great PC series. There are plenty of other examples, however, where going from the PC to a console market adversely affected the quality of the experience. From what I've read, similar problems have occurred with The Longest Journey, Alone in the Dark, Rainbow Six, Crysis, and Battlefield, among others that I probably don't know about. I can't attest to these ones personally because I haven't played both the before and after to say anything with authority, but you can find arguments all over the internet claiming that the console sequel was inferior to the original PC exclusives. 

Now, maybe it's not necessarily the console's fault that these games turn out worse, maybe it's just a matter of modern gaming not being as good as it used to be. The golden age of PC gaming was in the 90s and, to some degree, the early 2000s, and the industry has subsequently shifted more into a console orientation with the advent of the 360 and PS3. So maybe it's just a coincidence that these modern renditions of classic PC exclusives all tend to suck, or maybe they suck as a direct result of consolization. Who am I to say? All I can tell you conclusively is that something happens in the transition, which usually turns out for the worse. 

Click to enlarge

In some cases, like with Deus Ex: Invisible War and Thief: Deadly Shadows, the problems with the console version stem directly from the console's limitations. The original Xbox's lower memory capacity limited the size of maps and forced frequent loading times. In other cases, I think it's really just the effect of producers trying to appeal to a wider audience in order to make more money. More people own gaming consoles than gaming PCs, and if producers are aiming for a multi-platform release (ie, targeting the entire spectrum), then they tend to cater to the lowest common denominator and thus alienate the original PC fans. 

And I think it's generally true that PC gamers and console gamers like slightly different games. Some games are great on any platform, and differences in taste are not inherent traits of PC or console gamers, but I think there are noticeable trends. I mean, just compare the styles of Half-Life 2, one of the most successful PC shooters with Halo, one of the most successful console shooters. Both games were released on both platforms (eventually), but PC gamers tend to prefer HL2 and console gamers tends to prefer Halo. Then you've got PC-exclusive shooters like STALKER and ARMA compared to console-exclusive shooters like Killzone and Gears of War

So color me disgruntled, because it's kind of annoying when some of your favorite game series devolve into something more primitive and far less appealing than it originally was, and I wish PC developers would stop compromising the integrity of their games to appeal to the lowest common denominator. I also find it curious that I can't readily think of PC exclusive series that were better on consoles, so if you can think of any examples to counter my above examples, please let me know. 

6 comments:

  1. I think it's not much consolisation has just wanting to appeal to a wider audience. Sure consoles have limitations but we still had bigger and better games on the older consoles even with the limitations...

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  2. Whst I don't understand is why it "ruins" the game series for you. Admittedly, it is disappointing to see many games trade more in depth qualities for a more shallow experience, but you don't seem to want to look at the improved qualities. Case in point, oblivion and morrowind. While Oblivion was a dumbed down game, many of the things in it were superior. The most obvious and needed improvement over morrowind was the combat. Morrowind's combat was fucking terrible. Oblivion made fighting things with weapons actually tolerable. RNG for combat has no place in video games whatsoever.

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  3. I'd say Portal survived consolization and evenbenefitted from it. At least the folks at Valve know how to properly implement split-screen. I had more fun playing Portal 2 co-op than I did playing the original, although the original may have had more character.

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  4. System shock 1 it is a shooter with nothing of an rpg so bioshock is more in line with that. I liked more System shock 2 but I would not call bioshock a consolization.

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  5. The guy that wrote this article just hates video games unless they were made in 1994 for pc

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  6. this guy can kiss my ass

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